1969–2019: EPFL's stellar trajectory

Aerial view of the campus June 2017 © Alain Herzog / EPFL

Aerial view of the campus June 2017 © Alain Herzog / EPFL

Our school’s history dates back to well before the birth of EPFL. Originally set up under a private initiative in 1853, the Ecole Polytechnique de l’Université de Lausanne (EPUL) became a federal institute of technology in 1969. In this article, we trace the development of our school by looking back at a few pivotal dates and hearing from people who have been with the school over the years. We also look ahead to 2019, when a series of special events are planned to mark EPFL’s golden jubilee.

When Maurice Cosandey took over as head of what was then the Ecole Polytechnique de l’Université de Lausanne (EPUL) on 1 April 1963, he didn’t have a strategy but rather a firm goal: “To turn our cantonal engineering school into a federal institute.” And that goal was reached six years later when EPUL became EPFL, the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne – Switzerland’s second federal institute of technology after ETH Zurich. EPFL will be officially celebrating its 50th anniversary next year, but our history actually stretches back to the mid-19th century. We decided to mark our school’s golden jubilee with a retrospective look at what’s changed – and what hasn’t.

Today only the words Ecole and Lausanne remain from the school’s first name – Ecole Spéciale de Lausanne – in 1853. But that shouldn’t fool you: way back then, the five founders already had their sights set beyond the city. They wanted to “train excellent engineers right here in Switzerland.” That’s because otherwise young people growing up during the second industrial revolution – which saw the development of electricity and modern chemistry – would have to go to France or Germany to study engineering. The new school quickly earned a reputation for being “tough and selective,” reflecting its high standards. It gave out its first degrees in 1855, just a few weeks before its future sister school opened in Zurich.

An old idea

When Cosandey made his case for turning EPUL into a federal institute, he used much the same reasoning. “Engineering schools were springing up across Europe. We saw that everyone needed new labs and modern research equipment. I figured we would never have the resources to compete unless we became a federal institution,” said Cosandey during an October 2016 interview in EPFL Magazine.

But he had his work cut out for him. The subject had first been broached in 1903 by the head of what was then the Ecole d’Ingénieurs de l’Université de Lausanne, Adrien Palaz. In 1934 the school tried to obtain loans from the Swiss federal government, to no avail. It took the support of two councillors – one cantonal and one federal – to finally get Cosandey’s plans off the ground. After obtaining buy-in from Vaud Cantonal Councillor Jean-Pierre Pradervand, he and Pradervand headed to the Schweitzerhof hotel in Bern where they met informally with Federal Councillor Hans Peter Tschudi, who ran the Federal Department of Home Affairs at the time. Tschudi listened carefully to their proposal and replied: “I’ll back your idea because of the excellence of your school.”

A historic moment

In 1968, both houses of Switzerland’s parliament voted unanimously to create a second federal institute of technology. That same year, the Vaud parliament unanimously approved the transfer of the school to the federal level. “I think the main thing we felt at that historic moment was pride. Even though EPFL – its new name – will no longer be a Vaud cantonal school, it will remain based in Lausanne. And looking at ETH Zurich, it’s clear that the school has been a key driver of the city’s development. I’d be surprised if the same didn’t hold true for Lausanne,” wrote Jean-Bernard Desfayes in an article appearing in the Gazette de Lausanne on 8 May 1968. EPFL was officially created on 1 January 1969.

The rest is history. The school’s federal status paved the way to an expansion program, a new building (which cost over CHF 700 million at the time) and the relocation of all teaching activities to Ecublens. Each EPFL president left his mark along the way. And the school grew to encompass more than just engineering. After having already added architecture in 1946, it eventually tacked on computer science, microengineering, communication systems, life sciences and two colleges. The school has also spread its roots in French-speaking Switzerland with satellite campuses in Geneva, Fribourg, Neuchâtel and Valais.

Digging through the school’s archives and old news articles, you can’t help but notice that many of the key issues the school faces are still the same: encouraging women in technical fields, engineers’ social responsibility with regard to new technology, ethics, how to incorporate human sciences, how the school is positioned relative to ETH Zurich, relations with local businesses, public- and private-sector financing, cooperation, the growing number of foreign students and professors, fundamental research, the role of science and engineering in our society, and supporting our region’s social and economic development – undoubtedly a large factor in the school’s success.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Yet one thing has held constant throughout the school’s five different names and sixteen different presidents: a drive for excellence and to expand its reach beyond its local borders. Today it’s safe to say these goals have largely been reached, as EPFL is ranked one of the best universities in the world.

Three (long) careers at EPFL

EPFL veterans give us an insider’s view of how the school has changed over the years.

Minh Quang Tran, Physicist

At EPFL since 1968

Minh Quang Tran, born in 1951, was a member of EPFL’s first graduating class. He stayed on at the school, initially as a PhD researcher and then as a professor. Today he holds the title of EPFL Professor Emeritus and works as an expert in plasma physics for the EU’s EUROfusion DEMO project to build nuclear-fusion pilot plants.

“When I started studying at EPFL in 1968, we were still in the buildings on Avenue de Cour in central Lausanne. Maurice Cosandey was president at the time and we ran into him often since his office was on the ground floor. In the winter he wore a hat that he would always raise when he greeted us.”

“But for our class the most unforgettable figure at EPFL in those days was Bernard Vittoz [who went on to become EPFL president]. He was our class advisor and supported us during our years at the school, and even afterwards – we always stayed in touch. He came to our class events regularly almost until he passed away.”

Running around

“Before the move to Ecublens, we had to shuttle back and forth between the buildings on Avenue de Cour and at the CHUV’s former general clinic. That involved a lot of running around. If we wanted to get to a class on time, we had to convince the professor of the class just before to let us leave early. Later, when I was a researcher giving classes, I still had to go back and forth between my lab on Avenue des Bains and the classrooms that had just been built in Ecublens.”

Positive developments

“Back then you could still buy the class schedule for all sections for a given school year. It fit on a single A0 sheet of paper. For our graduation ceremony we were all together in the same auditorium. None of that would be possible today – the number of students has increased dramatically over the years. I’ve also seen the quality and the research impact of our school grow exponentially. Highly positive developments!”

Jean-Robert Gros, Facilities Manager at Archizoom

At EPFL since 1974

Jean-Robert Gros, born in 1954, began working at EPFL’s Institute of Geodetics and Measurement in 1974. It was his first job after getting his Swiss federal diploma in surveying – and he’s been with the school ever since.

Technological progress

“One of the things I’ve enjoyed most is getting to use new technology as it’s introduced. I started my career as a surveyor with a slide rule and calculating machines. Then at EPFL we got electronic calculators with trigonometric functions, and then computers. The same thing for distance measurement systems – we went from mechanical-optical systems with theodolites to infrared devices and now GPS. I don’t think I would’ve been exposed to all that in a private-sector firm, or at least not as fast.”

“I was lucky enough to take part in the construction of the Tokamak [the nuclear fusion facility used for research at EPFL’s Swiss Plasma Center that went into operation in 1992]. We initially took stability measurements on the generator and then further measurements to install some of its components.”

Working with others

“It’s been a great learning experience to work with engineers over the years, and being around students is always a lot fun. They get younger each year – I don’t feel like I’m getting any older! I’ve been at Archizoom [an EPFL museum] since 2003, and here too I really appreciate working with others, especially colleagues from other departments who I team up with to put on exhibitions.”

Alain Herzog, Photographer

At EPFL since 1983

Alain Herzog, born in 1959, got a degree in precision mechanics before becoming a photographer. As part of his degree program at the École d’Arts Appliqués in Vevey, he chose to complete a year-long internship at EPFL’s Institute of Strain Analysis, a lab that used various optical methods to take civil engineering measurements. “Then I got the chance to set up a darkroom at the site. At first I served mainly as a construction assistant for civil engineers, but I gradually expanded my network of contacts and my work to cover the whole school.”

Spreading the word about science

“Back in the days of film photography, students often asked me to photograph their semester and thesis projects. I set up a Kodak Express color photo developing service at EPFL in 1995. That was also when Flash, the EPFL magazine at the time, switched to color photos. Before, everything was done in black and white. Today all that is gone with the advent of digital cameras.”

“One of my best memories at EPFL was during Switzerland’s 700th anniversary [in 1991]. As part of the commemorations, each of the school’s thirteen departments put together a presentation of how technology in their field had developed over time. That was when the Polydôme was being built – it was supposed to be a temporary structure. I still remember setting up the exhibition inside the building before the windows had been installed when a thunderstorm suddenly broke out. We covered the exhibits with tarps to protect them. An unforgettable moment! Since then I’ve continued to help organize those kinds of events on campus, and it’s always been a lot of fun.”